No wine before its time

POLK COUNTY -- The wine grape growing season started late and slow in Polk County. But if the pleasant fall weather persists for another few weeks, it could end beautifully.

POLK COUNTY -- The wine grape growing season started late and slow in Polk County. But if the pleasant fall weather persists for another few weeks, it could end beautifully.

Winemakers in the region have been letting the grapes ripen from two to three weeks longer than usual this year.

"Compared to last year it is later, but looking at the 10-year average probably not that much later," said Patty Skinkis, an Oregon State University Extension viticulture specialist.

Still, the characteristics of the 2010 vintage will hinge on what Mother Nature has on her agenda for the next couple of weeks, Skinkis said.

Harvests in mid- to late-October are always in danger of running into frost, she said, but local winemakers aren't too concerned about that now.

"The forecast looks pretty good," said Johan Vineyards owner Dag Johan Sundby. "If the weather holds up, we will have a really, really good vintage."

Johan took its first grapes out of the vineyard, located near the Van Duzer State Forest Scenic Corridor, on Oct. 15.

Harvesting continued over the weekend and this week. Sundby estimated the vineyard would have all its grapes in within three weeks. He said with the recent sunshine, flavors are developing wonderfully.

"We had a late start and relatively cool summer," Sundby said. "We really needed a nice fall and we got that, so far."

Confidence wasn't running so high at the beginning of the growing season. Skinkis said a late fruit set due to a cool spring produced less fruit. In addition, the combination of moisture and heat this summer caused botryis bunch rot, a fungus, to infect grapes. That lowered yields more as vineyards had to cull infected fruit.

As late as September, things still were looking gloomy until a break in the weather blew in with the beginning of the falling leaves this month.

"I was worried," Sundby said of the beginning of the season. "I was worried a month ago, but I'm not worried anymore."

Steven Westby, the winemaker at Witness Tree Vineyard located in the Eola Hills outside West Salem, has been watching weather reports like a hawk lately.

Westby, like Sundby, has a positive outlook on Mother Nature's mood.

On Oct. 14, an in-house crew at Witness Tree harvested a small 2«-acre plot at the very top of the vineyard, the first fruit of the season. Planted in 2006, it was the block's first harvest. The young plants' leaves had already begun to turn orange and yellow hues, meaning the grapes wouldn't continue to develop. At that point, it is better to harvest, Westby said.

The morning was clear and rapidly heating up at about 9:30 a.m. A layer of fog blanketed the valley below the hilltop block, which sits at about 750 feet in elevation. Soon, that would burn off into a clear and warm day for October. Westby hopes that weather will hold for another few weeks so harvesting crews can avoid working in the rain. Water soaks the fruit, diluting the flavors and alcohol content of the wines.

Showers weren't, however, a threat that sunny morning.

Taking a stroll through the rows the workers were busy cutting, Witness Tree owner Dennis Devine seemed optimistic about the fruit being picked that day.

"It's sweet," Devine said.

Vines throughout the bulk of the vineyard, though, still lush and green, were not quite ready.

Westby had originally planned to start harvesting the bulk of the grapes on the 52 acres under vine at the 100-acre vineyard on Oct. 15. But the day before, the famously fickle weather outlook had changed again, giving him hope of more time to let the grapes ripen.

"A few more days is a few more days," he said.

Westby has been crushing and testing samples from different vineyard blocks on a regular basis, looking for indications the grapes are at the peak of flavor. At this point in the year, allowing for flavor development has to be balanced with weather patterns.

"The one thing I can't do anything about is the weather," Westby said.

In hot-summer years, the vineyards are racing against sugar peaks in their fruit. Sugar converts to alcohol in the fermenting process, so the winemakers want to be sure to harvest before the sugar content is too high.

Not this year, but that could very well could work in Oregon winemakers' favor when the 2010 vintage is ready for bottling. So far, Westby is seeing similarities to 1999 and 2008 vintages, two good years for Oregon wine.

"Those were absolutely classic wines," he said. "From that perspective, I'm actually kind of excited."


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